Book Review: The Gift of Church, by Jim Samra
Some Christians grew up in churches that seemed irrelevant to real growth in godliness. Some Christians—sometimes the same ones—were converted or grew significantly through a parachurch ministry during college. Some Christians have been burned by churches that abused authority, tolerated scandalous sin, or split over superficial issues.
Add all this up and you’ve got a lot of Christians who are ambivalent at best about the local church. Thankfully, many Christians today are rediscovering—or discovering for the first time—the centrality of the local church in Christian discipleship. And some, like Jim Samra, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, are serving us all by writing about it.
Samra’s personal experience fits much of what I’ve described above. This prompted him to spend years wrestling with the question, “Why church?” including writing a doctoral thesis on the role of the local church in Christian growth.
“WHAT BENEFIT IS THE CHURCH?”: SIX BIBLICAL ANSWERS
In his new book The Gift of Church, Jim Samra brings theological reflection, long personal experience, and the warm heart of a pastor to bear on the question, “What benefit is the church?” (17). In six crisp, colorful chapters, Samra builds a compelling case for why we as Christians need the local church.
In chapter one, Samra sketches a brief biblical theology of the assembly and establishes that God is present with his assembled people in a special way. One quibble: his metaphor “God in concert” tilts a little too far to the experiential, subjective side, and it could lend weight to a wrongly emotion-centric account of corporate worship. However, Samra balances this with a spot-on discussion of what to do when we don’t experience God’s presence in church.
Chapter two is an excellent discussion of the sanctifying power of diversity in the local church. Samra writes, “The best demonstration of Christian love, according to Jesus, is loving those who are not like you” (45). He further points out that when faith in Christ is the only thing (except location and language) joining diverse people together, as should often be the case in a local church, Christ is magnified (46). And Samra rightly warns against the temptation to deliberately build a homogenous church. He points out that God’s purpose for the church is that it would be a body made up of many different members, not a body in which all are the same (47).
Chapters three and four provide reasons why the local church rather than, for example, a parachurch ministry, must play the central role in Christian discipleship. In chapter three Samra writes,
If your only experience of Christian community is in a fellowship of Christian college students, this group will be well equipped to comfort you through the struggle of choosing your classes or dealing with persecution from a professor. But where would you turn if you were diagnosed with cancer? What is the likelihood that someone else in your college group has faced that? The church that God has created is multigenerational, allowing us to draw from the experience of Christians in every stage of life. (70)
In chapter four, Samra biblically expounds the traditional doctrine of the church as the mother of believers. In this section he kindly boils down some of his doctoral research to an easily accessible level, exploring the role of the local church in the believer’s maturation. And again, as in chapter three, Samra aptly argues for the unique role of the local church in discipleship. Samra reminds us that it is the local church that is biblically prescribed to celebrate the ordinances and practice discipline, which are vital, God-ordained means of sanctification (87, 90-91).
Chapter five discusses how believers can accomplish qualitatively and quantitatively more through the church than they can on their own. And chapter six explores the church’s role in making God’s grace in the gospel visible and tangible to the watching world.
WHAT ABOUT OBEDIENCE?
My only substantive critique of the book is that Samra omits calling Christians to membership and faithful service in the local church as a matter of obedience to God’s Word.
Early in the book, Samra mentions how some people would quote Hebrews 10:25 in response to his questions about why Christians should go to church, but he didn’t find this one prooftext to be a persuasive case for regular church attendance. That’s an understandable initial response, but I wish that Samra would have picked this issue back up later in the book. After all, if Hebrews 10:25 does command Christians to assemble together regularly as local churches—and I believe it does—then Christians need to be reminded not merely of the benefits church brings, but of the divine mandate upon us to regularly assemble as local churches.
Granted, Samra’s stated purpose is only to discuss the benefits of church, not offer a comprehensive rationale for participation in church. But the issue of obedience is not unrelated to the benefits of church. When Christians live as supreme, autonomous consumers and so refuse to submit ourselves to the authority of a local church, we cut ourselves off from our primary source of accountability, instruction, and guidance. The benefit of obedience in this area, then, is that it humbles us and forces us to submit to authority—both God’s and a local church’s—and so opens the door to all the benefits Samra so richly describes throughout the book.
A FEW OF THIS OUTSTANDING BOOK’S STRENGTHS
However, this is a relatively minor omission in an outstanding book. Here are a few of the book’s greatest strengths.
First, the book is a pleasure to read. It’s concise. It’s full of vivid illustrations. And it’s written in a warm, gracious tone. Samra pastors the reader on every page, gently leading stray sheep back into the sheepfold where God wants them to be.
Further, Samra repeatedly and clearly explains why the local church and no other institution holds the central place in the Christian life. I’m sure that some church leaders have struggled to find a compelling answer for the campus ministry devotee who says, “Our Wednesday night meeting has teaching, worship, prayer, and fellowship. Why do I need to come to church, much less join the church?” This book provides solid, biblical answers. Many of them, in fact.
A final strength of this book that is of particular benefit to pastors: Samra sees the local church in the New Testament. We tend to read the New Testament through individualistic lenses, so we often fail to see just how definitive the local church’s role in the Christian life really is. But Samra’s carefully trained eye helps us to see what’s really there on the pages of Scripture (see, e.g., pp. 81-82). Following Samra’s example, pastors who read this book should be better equipped to teach about the church through the course of their regular expositional preaching. This will, in turn, help the people in the pew understand and embrace the centrality of the local church in their discipleship.
A WINSOME, COMPELLING INVITATION
The Gift of Church is a winsome, compellingly biblical invitation into the life of the church. Pastors, active church members, and church skeptics alike will be well served by this loving reminder of the centrality of the local church in the Christian life.